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WHAT IS A MEETING HOUSE ANYWAY?

 

Built in 1729, Boston’s Old South Meeting House has been an important gathering place for nearly three centuries. While the history of this National Historic Landmark is widely celebrated today, the origins of its name are less understood. Why is it called a “meeting house”? What is a meeting house anyway?

The Old South congregation was founded in 1669 as the Third (Puritan) Church of Boston. The congregation descended from the Puritans who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 17th century. To the Puritans, a “church” was a congregation of people who came together as a body to worship God. A “meeting house” was the building in which they met. Today, we use the words “church” and “meeting house” interchangeably, but these early meeting houses were not consecrated buildings. Reflecting Puritan doctrine, meeting houses were architecturally-stark buildings; simple, white-walled rectangles lacking ornament and flourish. Still, these sometimes foreboding buildings were at the center of colonial communities: they were spiritual home, center for information, and venue for celebration and sadness.

The Old South congregation built a wooden meeting house in 1669, but overcrowding became a problem and the congregation tore it down to build a new, more spacious brick meeting house in 1729. The Old South congregation had opened the doors of their meeting house for civic use in its first wooden meeting house. Town meeting government was the New England tradition. Records show that the first recorded town-meeting held at Old south Meeting House was in May of 1712. An annual Election Sermon, delivered at the gathering of the General Court, was also held annually at Old South Meting House from that same year. The congregation continued to make the hall available as tension grew with Britain in the mid to late 1700s.

 

By then, Boston had several meeting houses, and since 1743, a hall over the public market specifically dedicated to town meetings by the terms of Peter Faneuil’s gift. Old South Meeting House, however, was the largest public building in Boston, and the only hall adequate to hold the numbers of people brought out by the growing sense of urgency. Old South Meeting House was also in the heart of Boston, close by the centers of government, the meeting places of the Patriots, the sites of confrontation, and the homes of the citizens. 

 

In the increasingly tense days of the 1760s and ‘70s, town meetings convened at Old South Meeting House to respond to each new crisis: the British seizure of John Hancock’s ship Liberty and impressment of sailors in 1768; the Boston Massacre in 1770; the arrival of the disputed tea in Boston Harbor in 1773; and the closing of the port in 1774.

 

In the years leading to the American Revolution, Old South Meeting House had become much more than a traditional meeting house; it was a vital meeting place for Boston’s citizens, who gathered within these walls to wrestle with the complex issues each new conflict brought with it. Colonists torn between loyalty to Britain and a new sense of separate interests debated the ethics and calculated the risks of each potential course of action to take. At Old South Meeting House, speech by speech, vote by vote, these colonists created the American Revolution.

 

When Faneuil Hall was expanded in 1805, Old South Meeting House no longer hosted town meetings. However, the building continued to have an active role in the civic life of Boston. The building was used as a venue for charitable organizations and civic groups, including the first-American YMCA and abolitionist organizations. Annual flag-raising celebrations and commemorations of Washington’s Birthday were popular functions. Old South Meeting House, Boston’s “Sanctuary of Freedom” where Adams, Otis, Hancock and Warren spoke out for liberty, even became a recruiting station for the Union Army during the Civil War.

In 1877 the Old South Association was established to preserve Old South Meeting House for future generations. Its mission is to preserve this remarkable building and ensure that it is actively used as a museum and vital gathering place in the city of Boston. Today, this treasured museum and National Historic Landmark is an active center for civic dialogue and free expression in the heart of downtown Boston. As a platform for free and unfettered speech, Old South Meeting House embodies the American tradition of civic discussion.